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Diver relives doomed descent

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: April 19, 2012

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t.rowe@bepp.co.uk

A diver told an inquest of his terrifying ordeal trying to save his diving "buddy" as first one and then the other ran out of air.

Deputy Coroner Alan Horne praised Robert Wheeler, from Swindon, after hearing how he tried desperately to save Bristol builder Graham Packer as the experienced divers fought for their lives off the Dorset coast.

The pair had not met before Easter Sunday last year when they paired up on a boat carrying eight divers to two sites off Lyme Regis. Robert King, skipper of the boat Blue Turtle, took divers to Lanes Ground, three miles south of Lyme, to hunt for scallops 23-24 metres down.

Mr Wheeler told how Mr Packer, 61, of Frampton Cotterell, signalled that he was ready to ascend because his air supply was low but then fumbled with the release of his marker buoy and took several minutes to release it.

"He saw some more scallops and he started scalloping again," said Mr Wheeler. "He grabbed another scallop and was trying to stuff it into his bag and hold the marker buoy. He had too many things in his hands. It took time, too long.

"I was finning into the current and starting to get tired. I would have been breathing more because of it and he would have been breathing more because he was tasking himself. When he finally got the scallop in the bag I gave quite an abrupt signal and began to ascend."

When they were four-five metres from the surface they stopped for a planned decompression break but Mr Packer ran out of air.

"We had been hovering for 30 seconds to a minute when I suddenly noticed him gag and scrabble for his 'pony' (emergency air bottle) which was clipped to his front."

But as he pulled the regulator of his original air supply away to fit the emergency regulator the original's necklace-style attachment got in the way.

Mr Wheeler said: "I had an alternative supply on a hose. I held it out to him. He darted towards me almost like a reflex. I held the regulator out towards him. He held one hand over it and grabbed me but as soon as he grabbed hold of me we started going down very quickly. No bubbles were coming out. I prised his fingers away and saw the equipment was on upside down. I turned it up the right way. There was no time to waste, I grabbed him by the tank valve and hit my inflator on my buoyancy jacket, and I was out of air too. There was no air in the jacket. I thought, this is it, I am going to die."

Mr Wheeler said he believed Mr Packer had taken a lungfull of water when he grabbed the regulator. His own last chance was to grab Mr Packer's emergency bottle. "I got a couple of breaths from his pony and suddenly I was going up fast," he said.

Despite an 18-hour search over two days Mr Packer's body was not found.

Recording a narrative verdict, Mr Horne, deputy West Dorset coroner, said Mr Wheeler "took steps beyond the call of duty and put his own life at risk" and was "brave and courageous."

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